Russian shipbuilding still in trouble

A couple of recent announcements indicate that Russian shipbuilders are continuing to struggle with construction of new types of ships. First came the announcement, right at the end of 2015, that the commissioning of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate was being delayed for another year, until the end of 2016. At the same time, the navy announced that the Admiral Grigorovich frigate will be commissioned in the first quarter of 2016. It had previously been expected to be commissioned in May 2015, before being repeatedly pushed back. In addition, commissioning of the lead ship of the Alexandrit class (Project 12700) of minewsweepers has been pushed back yet again, to May 2016. It was originally planned to be in the fleet back in 2013. And sea trials of the Ivan Gren amphibious ship were also delayed until the first quarter of 2016. As a result, in 2015 the Russian Navy received no new blue water surface ships.

On the other hand, it lost the services of several ships, including the Steregushchiy corvette that suffered a fire in April and both Neustrashimyi class frigates. The latter ships are waiting to be overhauled at Yantar shipyard, but the overhaul will take a long time since Ukraine will not supply replacement engines for the ships. The lack of engines will delay construction on most of the larger classes of surface ships, including Project 22350 (Admiral Gorshkov class hulls 3-4), Project 11356 (Admiral Gorshkov class hulls 4-6), and Project 20385 (Stereguschiy class variant, replaced by Project 20380 with less reliable Russian-built engines).

Submarine construction may seem better on the surface, with the commissioning of two Improved Kilo class ((Project 636) diesel submarines and the return to active service in 2015 of the Akula class submarine Gepard and the Sierra class submarine Pskov after length overhauls. While there is no doubt that Russian submarine construction is in much better shape than the construction of ocean-going surface ships, there are problems here as well. First of all, despite being commissioned back in 2013, the Severodvinsk SSN remains in sea trials for the third year.

But more importantly, development of a new class of diesel-electric submarines appears to be in trouble. Problems with propulsion systems have long delayed commissioning of the lead vessel of the Lada class, resulting in the decision taken several years ago to build six Improved Kilo class submarines for the Black Sea Fleet. The Russian Navy appeared to be moving on in announcing the successor Kalina class, which was to have air-independent propulsion systems (AIP). Russian experts argued that AIP would be ready by 2017-18, and the new submarines could be built relatively quickly after that. However, the Russian Navy recently announced, with quite a bit of fanfare, that it had ordered another six Improved Kilo class submarines for the Pacific Fleet. These are very good submarines, which undoubtedly be equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles that will give them a potent anti-ship and land-attack capability. But the implication of this announcement is that the Russian Navy does not expect to receive any of the new Kalina class submarines any time soon, and is therefore ordering the tried and true submarines to fill the gap.

All in all, it seems that Russian shipbuilding is continuing to “tread water,” successfully building ships that it has already built in the past but having serious problems with delays in the new projects that were expected to form the core of the Russian Navy in the 2020s.

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Russian navy shifts strategic focus with China in mind

I’m off to Russia again this week, for a conference on the Russian military. I’ll blog about the conference next week, but in the meantime, here’s an Oxford Analytica brief I wrote on Russian naval missions. This is from February 2011.

SUBJECT: Navy rearmament and the implications for its missions and strategy.

SIGNIFICANCE: Recent announcements about shipbuilding plans strongly suggest that the navy no longer views the United States and NATO as its primary potential opponents. Over the coming decade, a revised strategy is likely to focus on attempting to counter China’s military rise, while also combating piracy and instability along Russia’s southern flank.

ANALYSIS: The shipbuilding plans outlined in the State Armaments Program (SAP) for 2011-20 show the likely direction of Russian naval strategy for the next decade. The key development is a shift in focus from countering US and NATO naval forces and towards the protection of Russian economic activity, accompanied by a shift in geographic balance towards the south and east.

Maritime Threats. According to official policy, the main maritime threats to Russia include:

  • the rise of naval activity by foreign powers, both near Russian borders and in the open seas;
  • the development by foreign states of naval forces more powerful than its own;
  • illegal economic activity (e.g. poaching) in territorial waters; and
  • the unclear legal status of the Caspian and Azov Seas and the Arctic Ocean – especially the existence of territorial claims in the Arctic.

Based on these threats, maritime policymakers have formulated three general goals for naval activity. They are:

  • defending national interests and security in the open seas;
  • maintaining Russia’s status as a ‘global naval power’; and
  • developing and effectively using naval potential.

These stated threats and goals are nebulous at best, and say little about how the navy will actually evolve over the coming decade.

Shipbuilding plans. However, shipbuilding plans provide useful signposts for determining the missions the navy will undertake. The main focus of Russian shipbuilding over the next decade, according to the SAP, will be on relatively small multi-purpose frigates and corvettes, as well as submarines and amphibious ships.

  • Frigates. The primary surface ships will include Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, twelve of which are to be built by 2020. These ships will be capable of long distance voyages, with an expected range of 5,000-10,000 kilometers (km).
  • Corvettes. Coastal defense will be provided by up to 20 Steregushchii-class corvettes, with a range of 2,000-5,000 km. Russia will also build ten amphibious-assault ships, including four Mistral-class ships to be built jointly with France and six Ivan Gren-class ships of domestic design.
  • Submarines. Submarine construction will consist of up to eleven Lada and Kilo diesel submarines, as well as up to three Severodvinsk-class nuclear attack submarines. Despite serious design challenges, strategic submarine construction will continue, with six to eight Borei-class submarines expected in the fleet by 2020.

Strategic Intentions. Notably, there are no plans to develop large surface combatants – though until quite recently, planners were talking about building aircraft carriers and destroyers, and renovating three old Kirov-class cruisers. All of these plans have been scaled back. Design work on new aircraft carriers and destroyers is proceeding, but none will be built in the next ten years. Only one cruiser is likely to be renovated, as the other two are not in good enough condition to make refurbishment worthwhile.

The shift in focus away from large surface combatants and nuclear attack submarines towards frigates, corvettes, and diesel submarines shows that Russia no longer sees NATO and the United States as realistic potential maritime opponents. Whereas the Soviet navy was focused on building ships designed to take on aircraft carrier groups, the ‘new’ Russian navy will be primarily focused on defending against smaller adversaries closer to home.

Naval missions. The navy is likely to carry out several missions:

  • Coastal Defense. The coastal protection mission will focus on offshore energy platforms and undersea pipelines, as well as the protection of Russian fishing fleets in areas where maritime borders are still disputed. This mission will be carried out primarily by the new corvettes and by older ships such as the Udaloy-class destroyers.
  • Multinational operations. While the navy’s global missions have been and will be sharply reduced compared to the Soviet period, it will continue to pursue some objectives around the globe. Most significantly, this will include participation in multinational counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean. Russian ships have maintained an almost constant presence off the coast of Somalia for several years; these deployments are likely to continue.
  • ‘Showing the flag’. In addition, the navy will send ships to visit states that are existing or potential arms industry customers. This was done two years ago in Venezuela and India, and is seen as having helped Russia secure several new contracts. Future trips may include states such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, and Syria. These visits do not reflect a desire to build up a truly global naval presence, but rather represent the defense industry’s commercial priorities.

South and eastern shift. Going forward, the Baltic Fleet and Caspian Flotilla will both focus on coastal defense missions, including protecting offshore energy infrastructure; the Caspian Flotilla will also be used against poachers and smugglers. It is likely that the Baltic Fleet’s large ships, which are unnecessary for these missions, will be transferred to the Black Sea Fleet (BSF). The BSF, along with the Pacific Fleet, is also expected to receive most new vessels. These trends reflect an ongoing shift away from the Northern Fleet, which was traditionally the mainstay of the navy. The emerging consensus that NATO is no longer Russia’s primary potential adversary will result in a drawdown of Northern Fleet capabilities, and a shift towards eastern and southern threats:

Northern Fleet decline. The Northern Fleet is now largely unnecessary as a major war-fighting force. However, it will remain the primary home of Russia’s strategic submarines, including all the Delta IVs. Conventional forces will focus on:

    • protecting Arctic fisheries;
    • maintaining the security of facilities built to extract Arctic undersea hydrocarbon deposits;
    • ensuring control of northern sea lanes, which will eventually see a significant increase in merchant traffic as a result of global warming; and
    • sending larger ships on long cruises to promote political and military partnerships abroad, including trips to Latin America and the Mediterranean.

    Pacific Fleet power. Over time, the Pacific Fleet will become the most important in Russia. It will receive most (if not all) of the newest Borei-class strategic submarines, to replace its aging Delta III fleet. It will also receive the first of the Mistrals. The fleet’s missions will include:

    • countering the rapidly modernizing Chinese navy;
    • ensuring Russian sovereignty over the disputed Kuril Islands;
    • protecting offshore energy infrastructure off the Sakhalin coast; and
    • showing the flag in South and South-east Asia.

    Black Sea rearmament. Because of its poor condition, the BSF will receive the largest number of new ships, including six frigates, six diesel submarines, and at least two amphibious ships. It will have three primary missions:

    • controlling maritime access to Georgia in the event of a new conflict there or elsewhere in the Caucasus;
    • protecting shipping in the Black Sea; and
    • deploying for anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

    CONCLUSION: Despite occasional hostile rhetoric, Russian leaders recognize that a conflict with NATO is extremely unlikely. Military planners clearly regard China as the most important potential threat to national security – even though great efforts are under way to enhance diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing.

    Is the Mistral deployment to the Pacific a dagger aimed at the heart of the US Pacific Fleet?

    I suppose I should not be surprised that the professional fearmongers would not be fazed by the announcement that the Russian navy will deploy the first two Mistrals to the Pacific Fleet. Since a good chunk of the commentariat had spent well over a year arguing that placing these ships in Russian hands would destabilize Russia’s entire western periphery and present a grave threat to Georgia and the Baltic states, I thought that this announcement would trim their sails a bit.

    Instead, we have the following two quotes from an otherwise informative piece by Pavel Felgenhauer in today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor on changes in Russian force structure in the Far East:

    It seems the deployment of the Mistrals in the Pacific Fleet is not against Japan, but that the US in preparation for conflict could “leap-frog” the fortified South Kuriles into the undefended and uninhabited central Kuriles to invade the Sea of Okhotsk.

    and

    Japan is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic planning. The strategic build up in the Kuriles and of the Pacific Fleet capabilities may not be aimed at Japan or China per se, but the US – Russia’s true present number one strategic concern.

    It turns out that placing the Mistrals in the Pacific may perhaps be an even greater threat to US security than having them in Russia’s western fleets. After all, the US remains Russia’s top strategic concern, so all of its military planning must clearly be aimed at stopping the inevitable US invasion.

    There are so many things wrong with this analysis, I’m not sure where to begin. First of all, if the US for some reason wanted to invade the Sea of Okhotsk, presumably in order to take out Russia’s nuclear submarines based there, I can’t imagine that the Mistrals would pose any kind of impediment. These ships are essentially troop and helicopter transports with some nice C2 capabilities. The main criticism of the French version of these ships is that they cannot enter hostile waters without an escort, because they are under-equipped for self-defense. They would be no match for even a single US destroyer, much less a carrier strike group. In other words, they add little or nothing to Russia’s ability to protect the Kuriles from a potential US invasion.

    Next, let’s address the question of whether the US is Russia’s number one strategic concern. While one can’t read the minds of President Medvedev and his advisors, this statement seems to go against the entire thrust of the recent military reform. The reform was designed to increase the Russian military’s ability to deal with small local conflicts, while reducing its classic Cold War anti-US posture. This would not have been done if military planners still believed that they would be likely to fight a war against the United States. There’s just no evidence out there to support this statement.

    This is not to say that Russia can ignore the possibility of conflict with the US completely. It has to be prepared for such a conflict given the sheer power of the US military and its positioning near Russian borders. It would be foolish of Russian military planners to ignore the possibility of such as conflict. What I challenge is the statement that “The US is Russia’s number one strategic concern.” It’s more like Russia’s #4 or #5 strategic concern. And I very much doubt that the unlikely possibility of facing the US at some point is the reason for the decision to place the Mistrals in the Pacific. Especially given my argument above that they would be useless in that fight.

    Finally, there’s the question of whether Russia is truly concerned about the possibility of a Japanese threat to the Kuriles. Felgenhauer argues that “Japan is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic planning.” While I doubt that Russian planners believe that Japan is going to invade Russia any time soon, the reality is that strategic planners are paid to prepare for unlikely but possible contingencies, and Japan and Russia do have an unresolved border dispute. It would be irresponsible for them to not prepare for the remote possibility of a military conflict over the southern Kuriles at some point down the road, perhaps in the unlikely event of a turn toward militant nationalism in Japan. The chances of such a turn are remote at best, and if I were a planner, I’d spend my money on something else, but it’s certainly more likely than a US naval invasion of the Sea of Okhotsk.

    And the potential for a conflict with China is somewhat more likely than that (though again not very likely at all). Though the Mistrals aren’t particularly well equipped for a fight with China. Which brings us back to the question of why put the Mistrals in the Pacific. It seems to me, and I’ve made this argument before, that the Russian navy bought these ships primarily in order to rebuild its domestic shipbuilding capability. But having bought them, it needs to put them somewhere — and the Pacific is a more logical place than any of the other fleets given the local political and strategic environment. So having made that decision, they needed to be given a mission — and protecting the Kuriles made more sense, given the ships’ actual capabilities, than anything else.

    UPDATE: Added a paragraph above to address a commenter’s point that Russia has to be prepared to fight the US.

    Mistrals to the Pacific

    Russian news services reported yesterday that both of the first two Mistral ships to be built for Russia in France will be stationed in the Pacific fleet. Previous reports had suggested that just one would go to the Pacific. This announcement was made in the context of rising tensions with Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands. President Medvedev also announced that Russia will invest heavily in the modernization of the defense infrastructure on the four disputed islands and will upgrade the weaponry used by units deployed on these islands.

    This announcement reinforces my previous point that Russian leaders have decided to make the Pacific Fleet the most important fleet in the Russian Navy. But rather than focusing primarily on the potential Chinese threat, they also want to counter any efforts by Japan to reclaim the Kurils.

    Hopefully this announcement will calm the panicked claims about how the sale of these ships to Russia will destabilize NATO and threaten former Soviet states such as Georgia and the Baltic republics. I still think that Russia will eventually place a Mistral in the Black Sea Fleet, but if it is the third or fourth ship of the class, rather than the second, this will not happen until close to the end of the decade in the best case. And if the inevitable delays in assimilating new shipbuilding technology strike, it may take as long as 15 years for the fourth Mistral to enter the Russian Navy.

    What will the navy do with its ships?

    Surprisingly, developments in the Russian military have continued apace over the last two months while I’ve been more or less away from writing new material. Now I’m back and at some point will write about some of the things I learned about Caspian security.

    But first, I came across a very interesting analysis of likely Russian naval strategy for the next ten years based on plans announced in the State Armaments Program. This was published two months ago, but I haven’t seen it covered in English, so it seems worth noting. The author notes four situations in which Russia will have to depend on its naval forces:

    1. Protecting undersea pipelines and offshore energy deposits.
    2. Protecting Sea lanes of communication and trade (i.e. anti-piracy).
    3. Defending Russia from China. The author argues that since Russian ground forces could not withstand a Chinese attack, Russia’s only hope (other than its nuclear deterrent, which he doesn’t mention for some reason) is to defeat the Chinese Navy and threaten its major population centers on the coast.
    4. Showing the flag in areas where it’s important for Russia to have influence. The author specifically lists Latin America, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. He ties previous ship visits to these areas to subsequent arms sales to Venezuela and Vietnam.

    These are likely to be the four main missions of Russia’s conventional naval forces for at least the next decade. Note what is missing from this list. Based on its shipbuilding plans, Russia no longer considers the US an opponent. Instead of ships aimed at destroying US attack submarines and aircraft carriers, Russia plans to build smaller multipurpose ships such as frigates and corvettes.

    Furthermore, ship building plans indicate that in the coming years, the Pacific Fleet will become the most important Russian fleet, taking over from the Northern Fleet. Its main mission will be to deter potential Chinese aggression against Russia. It could also be used in the event of a conflict with Japan over the Kuril Islands, though I can’t imagine that how that dispute could lead to an armed conflict. Because of the priority given to this fleet, the first of the newly purchased Mistral ships will go to the Pacific Fleet.

    The Northern fleet will remain the main base for strategic submarines, while its big surface ships (and especially Peter the Great, which is nuclear powered and does not need to depend on accompanying refueling ships) will be restricted to “show the flag” types of cruises around the world.

    Now that the Sevastopol basing issue has been resolved, the Black Sea Fleet will be substantially modernized. Plans call for it to receive six diesel submarines and 12 new corvettes and amphibs. These will be used for three missions — to protect undersea energy pipelines, control maritime approaches to Georgia, and conduct anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

    Finally, the Baltic Fleet has no potential opponents and will be turned into a coastal protection force. All of its large ships are being transferred to Sevastopol and its sole mission will be to protect undersea pipelines. To this end, it will have a larger contingent of naval special operations forces.

    Of course, all of this depends on the Russian ship-building industry actually completing the construction of various ships in a timely manner. Plans call for the construction, over the next ten years, of 8 strategic submarines, 22 multi-purpose submarines (both nuclear and diesel), 12 frigates, 20 corvettes, and 10 amphibious ships. Given the track record, the likelihood of Russian ship-builders being able to build this many ships in ten years is more or less zero. Building half of those ships is perhaps a realistic target, if all goes well. But note that the first of the Ivan Gren amphibious ships, six of which are supposed to be built, has been under construction since 2004 and is currently listed as “in early stages of construction.” The first of the new Admiral Gorshkov frigates, laid down in 2006, was recently floated out of its launch dock but is still listed as only 40 percent complete.

    Despite the inevitable problems and delays that will push back this reconfiguration, the shipbuilding program spelled out in the SAP shows the likely strategic direction of the Russian Navy for at least the next decade. According to these plans, the conventional Russian navy will remain primarily a coastal defense force, while its older larger ships will primarily be engaged in friendly visits to other parts of the world.